MEET OUR FREDERIQUE CONSTANT WOMAN OF THE MONTH – CHEF LATHA K, THE FIRST WOMAN CHEF OF KERALA
BY NAMITA GUPTA
Entering the hotel industry at a time when women chefs were unheard of, she wasn’t someone who would take the challenge as a setback and withdraw in her own shell. Today after over three decades in the industry, her talent, grit and determination has made her a well-known face in Kerala and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that she holds a celebrity status in the culinary world in the southern states of India. Chef Latha K, Chef De Cuisine – Malabar Café -Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty admits to knowing nothing about the worldly matters and continues to follow her relentless craze for mastering her culinary skills in the kitchen.
What motivated you to become what you are today? What was the turning point?
I was born in a small village in Kozhikode, Kerala, and always fantasised of being a chef. I remember I was seven years old when I had already started nurturing dreams of becoming a chef. From a young age I used to see my mother and grandmother in the kitchen and I would tell them that I wanted to cook. My father used to tell me to go study and become a doctor. My home we also had a cook named Raman Nair. I wanted to marry my cook although he was older than my father. At the age of seven I was learning how to make Puttu and Pathiri (rice flour roti). When I was nine, my mother was unwell and I made Kerala fish curry and rice and everyone loved it. I loved going for meals to restaurants not because I loved eating out, but I loved to watch chefs in white coats cook with such flair and elegance. That’s when I dreamt of wearing a chef’s coat someday. At an early age of 16 I had started cooking for my friends and family. I was married after completing my tenth grade, but that didn’t stop me from chasing my dreams.
How did you decide to turn your passion into profession?
Cooking for me was never a profession, it was a hobby turned into passion. I pursued a degree in Hotel Management from Kozhikode in professional cookery and later worked in numerous restaurants and hotels in India and abroad. The Food Craft Institute in Kozhikode didn’t want to give me admission as there were no women in this industry in those days. But I was sure what I wanted to do and I became the first girl student at the institute among 27 boys.
How tough was it to make a mark in your sector? What were the challenges and how did you overcome them to follow your passion?
As part of the one-year course, I had to do an internship in a hotel, but no hotel in Calicut was willing to take me as an intern. In those days it was not considered good for women to work in hotels, so I got in touch with a friend in Chennai who even offered me to stay with her for a few months with her. A three-star hotel in Chennai called Royal Mirage agreed to take me as an intern and that’s where I received my first formal training. After that I returned to Calicut and started a small restaurant called Kairali and my catering company. I ran it successfully for three years, but I wanted to explore, experience and learn more. I worked in Trivandrum and Kochi for a while and also started flight catering work where I was a continental chef. Every step was challenging. There were many days when I used to work for 15 to 18 hours. People never encouraged me, but always used to look down upon me only for the reason that I was a woman chef in an industry dominated by men. They would tell me that women have other things to do and it would be more graceful if they stick to that and not work in the hotel industry. First 15 years was difficult but I always told them that cooking is my passion and I don’t know anything else and I don’t like to do anything else. I told them that kitchen is my temple and cooking is like a prayer or meditation.
What message do you have for women who encounter roadblocks? How would you best describe yourself as a woman who’s living her passion?
Soon women started taking up this profession and now there are many women in the hotel industry in all the divisions. I think women are very sincere about their work. They do everything with great loyalty and love. Most men don’t really have that kind of dedication. Women have a knack to cook food that is close to what you get at home, whereas male chefs tend to use a lot of oil and masalas. A lot of guests love my cooking and always compliment me on how they were reminded of their mother’s or grandmother’s food after eating my dishes. Food is always associated with memories and my flavours brings them good food memories. These days there are all kinds of specialty cooks, but one thing that will never go out of fashion is love. Cooking has to come from the heart. Food tastes best when its cooked and served with love. It’s an art that has to come from their heart.
What’s your favourite food memory so far? What cooking do you specialise in?
My favourite food memory is a traditional Kerala Sadhya prepared by my grandmother and served with love. Saj Group started a Thai restaurant in Kochi and I learning to cook Thai cuisine and was their specialty chef. After that, I learnt many new cuisines along the way and also worked in the Middle East for two years where I mastered Arabic cuisine. Later I came back and spent a year in Wayanad to learn about tribal food. I learnt how tribals kickstart their day with a herbal soup, cooked overnight on woodfire, but wrapped in leaves or bark. I studied the benefits of cooking with roots, vegetables and herbs alongside the meats. There’s so much to learn from jungle cuisine and Wayanad was a great learning. I can cook many types of cuisines – Indian, Chinese, Continental, Thai, Arabic, but my speciality is to revive forgotten recipes of Kerala. I was born in the royal family of cooks. I also took training at Vaidya Sala Kottakkal in Kerala, where I learnt all the nuances on diet food and Ayurveda medicine. My grandmother used to make very delicious food and even in those early days I had learnt how curries made out of drumstick leaves are very good for our skin and internal organs. Kerala basil coffee is also excellent and I created my own coffee powder at Hyatt using basil leaves, fenugreek, cumin seeds and coriander. My Ayurveda coffee helps give relief from cold, cough and fever. You can add palm sugar or honey to it. Hyatt uses these concoctions. I also pound and create my own masalas without any preservatives or food colours, that are used for cooking chicken, vegetables, various curries, chutneys, sambhar, pickles inhouse at Hyatt and we don’t buy any masalas from outside. These lend the special flavours that you get in the cuisine here.
Please share some highpoints of your culinary journey so far?
I also started three hotels in Kannur. When executive chef of Hyatt came and tasted my food, he offered me to come to Hyatt and since then I’ve been with them. I began with consulting and later decided to join them full time. I’m not well versed with computers or any of the modern day systems. My only passion till date remains food. I’m also training people in the kitchens of Hyatt. I also go to hotel management colleges and give motivation classes. I’ve also written a cook book and made appearances on many TV shows in Kerala and Dubai. I do a lot of cookery shows for all the regional channels. Earlier each of the specialty cuisines were different and each one of them be it Hindu, Muslim or Christian was unique. I want to revive the flavours that are unique to each community. Also, every district in Kerala has its own unique dishes and flavours. I wake up at 6 am every day and after offering my prayers to God I go about my day. I like to keep myself updated about food and read about food every single day. I also write one recipe every morning and one every night. I already have thousands of recipes in my repository. I’ve also shared over 350 of my grandmom’s and forgotten recipes with Hyatt and I keep creating new ones. Earlier the Hyatt staff used to buy all the masalas from outside. I taught them how to make them inhouse and we will also be starting our own curry powder unit. I’ll be soon publishing 550 forgotten recipes of Kerala, including jackfruit payasam, jackfruit biryani and other unique dishes. I have more than 3,000 original recipes.
What do you feel about being our Frederique Constant Woman of the Month for RITZ Magazine?
I feel extremely honoured as the Frederique Constant brand value of following your passion is what I have myself always believed in.
What are your future plans?
I want to publish a few books. After my recipe book, I want to write about my entire culinary journey, my feelings and the happiness and joy I get when I cook. Another dream of mine is to travel to different countries to taste the local cuisine.